The Sydney Theatre Company (STC) recently presented a play by Andrew Upton called THE PRESENT, which was an adaptation of an unwieldy text by Anton Chekhov known, mostly, under the title of PLATONOV (1881). It was never published, even read, until well after the death of its author (It was published posthumously in 1923). So, what PLATONOV, can be about, as we have, historically seen, can be very different, depending on the inclination of the Writer/Director. Anton Chekhov's first published and produced play was IVANOV, in November, 1887.
In 1884 Chekhov had graduated from Moscow University as a Doctor, the same year that he first developed symptoms of the tuberculosis which would later kill him. He found that he was the main support of his family, and was having to continue to write stories and sketches to supplement his income for their needs: his parents, his sister, Masha, and painter-brother, Nikolai, and their retainers - "Medicine is my lawful wife and literature my mistress .. " He was living in a semi-detached, eight room house, on Moscow's Garden Ring Road on the Northern edge of the city, and because of the unusual box shape, with its protruding front windows on two floors, Chekhov called this house he was leasing, at some expense, the Chest of Drawers!
From, ANTON CHEKHOV: A LIFE (1997), the definitive biography (as yet, in English) of Chekhov by Donald Rayfield:
[In 1887] Anton was short of money. For 150 roubles he sold ... the rights to fourteen of his comic stories; he was waiting for Suvorin (a publisher) to market a more substantial book. In Russia it was more profitable to write full-length plays: a playwright received two per cent of the gross takings for each act of a play. To be performed in the State theatres, a play had to pass many hurdles. In Moscow there was one reputable private theatre: Korsch's. ... Chekhov [had] made fun of a 'preposterous' drama at Korsch's theatre. Korsch challenged him: "Why don't you write a play yourself?" Korsch's actors told Chekhov he could write well: 'You know how to get on people's nerves.' Chekhov agreed to write a play, and then join the Russian Society of Dramatists and Operatic Composers.
Chekhov's title, IVANOV, was a clever ploy. Ivanov is a surname as common in Russia as Smith (Jones?) in England, and the play could bring one per cent of the population to see their namesake. Ivanov, a bright intellectual (we are told) spends all four acts in a manic depression. The Jewish girl he has married and cut off from family and religion is dying of TB; he falls for the daughter of his creditors. Self-hate overcomes him. For the Korsch theatre IVANOV at least had melodramatic curtain falls: Act 2 ends with the sick wife catching her husband embracing his new love; Act 3 ends with his telling her the doctor's prognosis, and the play ends with the hero's death - by heart attack and later, Chekhov decided by bullet. Modern audiences are more enthralled by Ivanov's conflicts with the priggish doctor (Lvov) who denounces him and the evil steward who eggs him on (Borkin) - three central male figures suggesting one multiple personality. Chekhov himself saw the play as charting a mental disease, but he was to baffle actors who wanted to know whether Ivanov is villain or victim? Chekhov bemused them by subtitling the play "Comedy".
IVANOV, his 'dramatic miscarriage' was written in ten days. ... The first performance on 19 November 1887 launched Chekhov as a dramatist. He had produced something 'big', 'serious', though - as he saw himself - unpolished. ... Critics praised it only enough to ensure that the play toured the provinces. For 400 roubles Chekhov endured embarrassment which coloured his attitude to the theatre. Disapproval incited in him a love-hate relationship with drama; ..." 
Chekhov continued to rewrite the IVANOV text right up until 1901! In 1888, he wrote two one-act farces THE BEAR and THE PROPOSAL (and his first serious long story THE STEPPE, some say his first masterpiece), and followed on with another full length play THE WOOD GOBLIN (DEMON) in 1889 - for want of money was still an urgent necessity - which, unfortunately, even with its melodramatic formulas (or, because of them), was poorly received by the critics and withdrawn. In 1890 it was reworked by Chekhov into UNCLE VANYA, which was not published until 1897.
Compared to the later plays: THE SEAGULL (1896); UNCLE VANYA (1897); THREE SISTERS (1900); and THE CHERRY ORCHARD (1903), IVANOV's , and the next full length play, THE WOOD GOBLIN's plot might have come from a typical society melodrama of the traditional theatre repertoire of the times with their 'sensation' curtains falls, the long expeditionary speeches, confessions, explanations and acts of contrition. No matter that Chekhov attempted to 'not portray a single villain or angel (though I could not refrain when it came to buffoons), I did not indict anyone or acquit anyone'. IVANOV does not often get produced, the original play having some 18 speaking roles, plus extra non-speaking guests and servants that is a dissuader for contemporary production (Cost? - Belvoir has 9 actors and 1 stage manager.)
A digression: For some, myself included, producing a play of the quality-type of IVANOV (ignoring the literary/theatrical thrill of seeing it 'enfleshed') might also be part justification for productions of plays by a fellow Russian, Alexander Ostrovsky, for instance, or the French writing stars of the period: Dumas fils, Scribe, Sardu, or (DARE I?): John Galsworthy (STRIFE -1909; JUSTICE - 1910), Henry Arthur Jones (MRS DANE'S DEFENCE - 1900; THE LIARS - 1897), Oscar Wilde ( A WOMAN OF NO IMPORTANCE - 1893; AN IDEAL HUSBAND - 1895); John Millington Synge (THE SHADOWS OF THE GLEN - 1905; THE PLAYBOY OF THE WESTERN WORLD - 1907), or Sir Arthur Wing Pinero's THE SECOND MRS TANQUERAY - 1894. Hardly, or never seen on Sydney stages, any of them!
Eamon Flack, invites us with his Notes as Adaptor and Director of the Belvoir St production: "For various bents of mind" to consider. 'four different ways of thinking about the play.' (I think he means his IVANOV, not Chekhov's):
- IVANOV is a comedy about a group of people who used to have a passion for the culture and society of their country who no longer do, but who would like to once again. Which is a pretty good reason to do it in Australia now. The once-splendid edifice of Australian social democracy is being buggered with on a daily basis - in the Abbott government's case for want of anything better to do... (one presumes this was written before the Liberal Party leader coup. It certainly seems so, for when the opening of Act 3 of this production, has the company singing the Australian National Anthem in Russian with a portrait of Prime Minister Turnbull in their hands - I presume it was a portrait of Mr Abbott during rehearsal - events have caught them out of time, and it was too good of an idea to let go, I suppose?! "It was a hell of a bugga to learn that song in Russian and it took up quite some time in rehearsal. Had to keep it." [...]
- ... you get the feeling that this was his (Chekhov's) most personal play - that he was trying to work something out for himself as he wrote it - namely, what to do with the niggling feeling that life, splendid as it is, is shadowed by a pall of doom, and may not be splendid after all. ... [that] inside Anton Chekhov was a rampant Nikolai Ivanov: terrified, broken, unsure how to proceed, desperately trying to talk his way out of darkness [...] (All of that statement, concerning Chekhov's inner life -'terrified, broken, unsure how to proceed, desperately trying to talk his way out of darkness' - is a huge presumption of Mr Flack's, I think, query.)
- There is an idea buried in IVANOV that later became the key idea in Chekhov's four better known plays: the idea that we live for something better than ourselves - for something that preceded us and will outlive us . [...] (Rather, that we live in HOPE for something better than ourselves. "If we only knew", as Olga says in THREE SISTERS, I reckon!)
- When you strike life and the world's inevitable seams of chaos you need something to get you through. [...] IVANOV is about a group of people who find themselves, after a life of faithful human labour, on the cliff edge. Do they put their heads in the sand, or do they stand and fight? At the very least they need to believe that our best qualities will somehow come forward; that our humanity - if we can only get a handle on exactly what that is, if we can only get a clear view of the problem, if we can only remain sufficiently sane - will somehow carry the day..." (Chekhov's hero, Ivanov, I would consider, in the published texts of his play, does not hold what some of us would call enough wellness, i.e. sanity, to carry the day, when you observe the gun he puts to his head and kills himself.)
This play by Mr Flack is certainly spry in its comic satirising of the present Australian political malaise, (national and international) and the production is certainly very, very funny with the apparent desperate glee that this company - most of them, not all - have invested in the characterisations, with a genuine lack of fear of overstatement and relish for caricature in the Barry Humphries tradition. It smacks, too often, for me, to be absolutely admiring of this production, of the 'piss-take' habit of the Australian artist, and the crass appropriation of the fame of either the writer or the play to draw an audience (like Chekhov and his need for money from box-office in 1887, perhaps, the Belvoir St Company has a need as well in 2015?) However, I do think that calling it by another title, admitting its takeoff inspiration, in this case, Anton Chekhov's IVANOV, would have been a less tendentious choice, and a possibility of its uncritical success, than what this IVANOV has re-enforced as a Belvoir trait. Belvoir have been particularly brash in the continuous habit of doing this: THE WILD DUCK, DEATH OF A SALESMAN, and even more appalling title and author usage: THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR, HEDDA GABLER, THE WIZARD OF OZ, to name a few. I believe this play by Mr Flack is meritorious and deserves the creating of a more contemporary and meaningful title than the appropriation of the original (and its writer's reputation), as the box-office lure.
Given the text material given them in this adaptation of the Chekhov IVANOV, I particularly loved John Bell, with his delicious observation and crafting of Shabelsky. His control in the subjective pursuits of his character were beautifully balanced with the objective craft skill, as an actor, in delivering accurately, wryly, a man of such desperate and rapacious needs - pathetic and funny, both at once. A terrific performance. Too, John Howard, as Lebedev, the 'castrated' husband/father - his human goodness diluted through habit and the need to keep the peace, as clear, vulnerable, and as moving as possible. Fayssal Bazzi playing the 'clown' figure, Borkin in this play, an energy of facetiousness and blithe optimism in the face of terrible odds for planned success with a continuous good-humour - delightful. Airlie Dodds impressively plays Sasha, a self-willed teenaged rebel with a real cause - husband hunting - as if it were a naked revelation of just herself, the actor- it will be interesting to see other work from her to gauge her range response. In a role, particularly adapted for Yalin Ozucelik, as Lvov, by Mr Flack, the 'straight-man' to the comic dilemmas of most else in the play, he charts a strong and convincing figure in the landscape of the production - dour, aggravated, frustrated and maybe, a trifle 'love-sick'.
Helen Thomson as Zinadia, is called upon to deliver what we have seen many times before, a bold and sly characterisation of calculated comedy, and does not surprise or let us down (THE CHILDREN OF THE SUN); while Blazey Best is perfectly unrecognisable with her creation of Babakina, her physical masking absolutely transforming, and handles the invention of the satire of the greedy bourgeoisie of investment savvy, written by Mr Flack, with clarity, to only, later, in the farcical turnings of the production, tread into a caricature, just a little beyond the pale of believability - unfortunately.
A grave mis-step was surely the decision of Mr Flack and Belvoir to write a role, Gabriella, that Mr Flack has attempted to cobble from a multiplicity of Chekhov's minor 'cartoons' in the original, and cast the regular stage-manager of the Belvoir St company, Mel Dyer. It does not seem to me that Ms Dyer has either the skill or the experience to pull together the demands of the scripted work convincingly, or with much interesting variety, as an actor could - it was, for me, a kind of lame 'camp' company in-joke, with the exhibition of a limited dry humour from the performer, that did give neither Mr Flack nor the production much benefit or credit. It might have been funny in rehearsal, but read 'not much funny' in performance. (In the present honourable ruckus over the opportunities for the women of this city to be represented, given work in our theatres - which, if I remember correctly, began, scandalously, several years ago at the announcement of the last season curated by Neil Armfield for Belvoir St, and now in hot debate again, originating from the recent Darlinghurst Theatre Season announcement - why a non-actor has been given work, instead of the casting and employing of an actor experienced, trained for the job, for Gabriella, is a wonder. It seems to me outrageous, firstly on the count of the professional actors who are unemployed and seeking opportunities - and there are many, MANY; secondly, of the reputational practice of Belvoir as a serious company; thirdly, for the audience watching it, who are being 'short-changed'; and fourthly, for Equity permitting it. Does Equity know what has occurred?! If so, what action has been taken? It seems to be a brazen, clumsy decision/choice - no less, than this company's casting of a man, perhaps, as Hedda Gabler last year - a role coveted by any actress of ambition, and rarely, professionally available. There does not seem to be much equity of regard given the women artists by this company. Embarrassing disaster.)
Zahra Newman plays Anna, in this production, and is given the most roughly handled creation of Mr Flack's in his adaptation, for he has reduced most of the 'stakes' of the original role and intention in Chekhov's play. Anna, in the original is a Jewish woman who has fallen in love with a man outside her faith and in doing so, has exiled, disinherited, herself from all her family, social, cultural and religious supports - a woman bravely alone with the man she loves - who, on top of all that tragedy, is dying of tuberculosis, and finds that her husband, Ivanov, has sickened of her and has begun an adulterous flirtation with the local, young, feisty heiress. Life choice and life has been cruel indeed to Chekhov's Anna. Mr Flack says, in this play/production that Anna, 'has been written specially for Zahra Newman, and we left Anna's cultural background an open question." Be that as it may, on the page, that may be so, but on the stage, Ms Newman speaks with an American sound in her voice and speech and appears to be of 'black' heritage - Anna's cultural background is to be read by the audience from the "cues" - 'clues' we are given. (Ms Newman, I was puzzled, looked and sounded, played Anna as an immensely robust tuberculosis sufferer, until the third act, I thought).
I go on with this because Ewen Leslie, as Ivanov, has some of his character diminished in audience exposure, when in the Act 3 concluding argument, between himself and his wife, Anna, which ultimately is the emotional cause of her death, has only to climax, textually, with shouting at her from the pen of Mr Flack: "Shut up you stupid foreign bitch!" Whereas, infamously, notoriously, Chekov has Ivanov shouting, depending on translation: "Shut up, you kike bitch!" (Laurence Senelick - 2005), or, "Shut your mouth, Yid." (Brian Carson - 2002). This choice by Chekhov is a deliberate stroke of characterisation of Ivanov for the audience to absorb. The deliberate, insensitive jibe by Ivanov in the wearying heat of his wife's, Anna's vulnerability, is surely a clue from Chekhov, for the audience as to the true nature of the man? Chekhov is famous for his details in creating character. "Shut up you stupid foreign bitch." hardly realises the impact of the original, and taking the visual and aural cues created by casting Ms Newman, surely the text should have been: " Shut up you stupid nigger bitch! (or negress!)" to have a similar truth to be told of Ivanov and his nature, especially in present day Australia and in our growing awareness of our racism - unconscious or conscious, though it may be? Was this choice by Mr Flack an example of what I observed in my diary-blog of DEAD CENTRE / SEA WALL, the tendency in Sydney theatre to edit out, or soften the unplesantantries of the world of the play we are watching - a kind of political correctness, crowd pleasing, avoidance of the power of the drama that the writer has written to protect the contemporary Sydney audience from having to confront and deal with the import of ugly detail and information?
One can see the difficulty that Mr Leslie was burdened with when such a powerful character detail/underlining by Chekov is removed by Mr Flack for his 2015 rendition of IVANOV. But even more demoralising, I imagine, and depressing (catastrophic?), for Mr Leslie, is the choice by Mr Flack, as Director, to render, inconclusively, for the audience, the suicide of Ivanov with the bullet to his brain. Mr Flack offers us the coming of a heart attack to Ivanov, which Chekhov made in his first draft of the play, AND the gun held to his own head, which Chekhov in his second draft, wrote to happen and be fired off-stage, but then, in all later drafts, brought onstage to be witnessed by a crowd of people, but which Mr Flack prevents been shown, before any resolution can take place, by 'blacking-out' the action on the stage (there is not a gunshot heard in the dark, either) - so, the audience are left with no conclusion. Does he suicide/die or not? All drama is pessimistic and all comedies are optimistic in action, for their audiences, no matter the dire events of the adventure of the characters, and since this IVANOV is desperately a comedy, a bloody suicide cannot not be its grace-note? It would shift the emphasis from the comic, indeed. The fact that Chekhov's Ivanov is a man/character who is capable of suicide is a psychological element of enormous import for any actor taking on this role, that could/would inform Mr Leslie's choices throughout the entire play. Mr Flack's inconclusive offer is a bit of a cheat I reckon and leaves Mr Leslie with a difficult acting dilemma - does this Ivanov have the burden of a Pessimistic/tragic view of the world, or an Optimistic/comic view of the world, to interpret for the audience?
Despite these examples of the Flack absenting of important Chekhovian details, Mr Leslie gives a fine reading of the Chekhov 'Hamlet'-figure - 'a university graduate, in no way remarkable; [who has] a somewhat excitable, ardent nature, strongly inclined to honourable and straight forward enthusiasm, like most educated men of his class; [where] his past was nobler than his present and his projects for serving people evaporated' - a man totally disillusioned with life, only in a Flack/Australian caste.
The Design elements, the Set by Michael Hankin, is well thought through to give us intimations of the place we are witnessing being both, perhaps, Russian and Australian at the same time - love the LEVIATHAN detail of the small framed photograph of Mr Putin - with a simple choice of properties to create the four different spaces demanded by Chekhov and Mr Flack's play (See photograph above). As well, the Costumes by Mel Page (assisted by Alicia Clements) had a witty and comfortable edge for the satire of Mr Flack's world and intentions. Lighting by Verity Hampson, is as wonderful in terms of creating place and atmospherics as one has come to expect of this artist, supported by Steve Toulmin's Composition and Sound Design.
To almost finish, from Mr Flack and his program notes:
I confess that this adaptation is slightly sillier than Chekhov's original play, but I happened to watch the Marx Brothers' DUCK SOUP as I was writing Act One and couldn't resist the influence (???? !!!!) Fortunately the play was always intended by Chekhov to be a comedy.This production is more than slightly sillier than Chekhov's intentions. And, Chekhov, in later versions of the play came to call the work a "Drama" whatever his first concept of the material.
In summary, IVANOV at Belvoir: Mr Flack's play is very funny, with a top notch cast, just not very Chekov, considering the political intent of this author. One wished that Mr Flack had the courage of his writing skills and had written more independently his own play with its own title, with an acknowledgement to the inspirational source for character and plot mechanism. Courage. I enjoyed this work much more than his MOTHER COURAGE, as I predicted, I might.
A beginning of change at Belvoir St and its offers? Let's hope so.
- Donald Rayfield, 1997, ANTON CHEKHOV: A LIFE, Henry Holt and Company, New York.
- Rosamund Bartlett, 2004, CHEKHOV, Scenes From A Life, Free Press, Great Britain.
- Richard Gilman, 1995, CHEKHOV'S PLAYS, An Opening Into Eternity, Yale University Press, New Haven and London.
- MIchael C. Finke, 2005, SEEING CHEKHOV, Life and Art, Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London.
- Laurence Senelick, 2005, ANTON CHEKHOV'S Selected Plays, W.W. Norton & Company, New York and London.
- Brian Carson, 2002, ANTON CHEKHOV, Plays, Penguin Books, London.